As humans, we learn by watching others do their thing. But sometimes, we get caught in a trap of repetition just because we haven’t seen any other way. And like any true Mandalorian, we just accept that “This is the way”.
I hate to say this, but the entire Indian comedy scene has started to sound the same. I understand that when you’re starting out, you tend to use certain stereotypes to get laughs, especially in awkward situations, like “Oh, you’re late, can I get you a watch?” But when experienced comedians fall into the same trap, it is disappointing.
Here’s a list of tedious patterns audiences get to see on stage by comedians.
It’s important to note that these overused statements are not the fault of an individual, but more of a group issue, and as an industry/sub-culture, comedians need to address this. So don’t @ me, is all I’m saying.
1. “What Do You Do?”
I once saw an audience member reply “I’m an engineer and yes haha I’m a virgin”. Honestly, it broke my heart. We need to find organic ways to have these conversations. The question by itself is totally valid. But the twofer “What’s your name? What do you do?” has become a pretty predictable pattern.
The breadth of possible questions is vast enough for comics to create unique interactions. “Who have you come with today? Where did you get your shirt from? Are you morning person?” Okay, maybe not that last one.
Audience interaction is a separate art form and all comics may not be good at it, and that’s fine. A little preparation can help. List out possible openings, just like we would on a first date. With a little practice, we can survive the embarrassment of the audience prophesying our punchlines.
2. “Let’s Get The Energy Up In Here!”
Don’t tell me what you’re going to do. Just do it.
If you think the energy in the audience is down, then bring it up. You don’t have to be the Morgan Freeman narrator voice-over for your own thoughts. “Now I’m going to walk to the other side of the stage.” Cool, bro. Just do it.
In fact, bringing the audience’s attention to what a dull crowd they’ve been often makes them hold back a little more. “You think I’m dull? I’ll show you dull!” And now you’ve got an audience with folded arms and a ‘let’s see if you can make me laugh’ attitude. Or worse, you just gave them ‘centipede syndrome’, where you make them conscious of having a bad day and then they actually have a bad day.
On the other hand, not all audiences are willing to bring their energy up. They may not have the excitement of a first time comedy-watching enthu-cutlet college kid. Some audiences are experienced comedy watchers and are interested in the jokes (when you eventually get to them). And even more, some audiences are chill introverted giggle types. Read the room, try a few things, and then just get on with the show.
3. “Make some noise if…”
Are you a DJ? No offense to DJs, but seriously. Are you a DJ?
This well-worn audience-rouser has become a substitute for a segue and has gotten too repetitive. To be fair, it’s a solid way to get a slow audience to interact or, well, get the energy up (oh the irony!) But if overused, audiences may think “am I here to cheer or are you going to make me laugh?” If you’re moving on to a new premise, then just move on. Sometimes, a mildly longer pause is enough for the audience to pick up that you’ll be changing topics.
By all means use it, but use it well and when required. And if you can, find creative ways to get reactions from audiences to moderate the monotony.
4. “How’s it Going?”
Your first words on stage can set the tone for the set. And they are highly effective if they lead into material. If you’re going to say “it’s nice being here,” then your next bit should be about ‘here’. Use every sentence as an opportunity to lead into a bit. Coming in with some intent and a planned opening line (even if you just planned it in the green room) can make a solid first impression on a crowd.
Imagine being in the audience where 9 comics ask you “How’s it going” or “how are you doing?” back to back! Should you say “good”, “woo”, or break into individual replies on how they were stuck in traffic today? Fewer words, tight set, strong opening, big impression.
5. “Up Next is a Very Funny Comedian…”
If your best introduction for the next act is that s/he’s funny, you have no business hosting a comedy night! We may not know all the comics on the line up and I get that. If that’s the case, learn something about them before the show, ask them how they want to be introduced, or make something silly up! But introducing a comedian as ‘funny’ is just lazy. You’re in the creative industry, be creative. It’s more acceptable to call them on with their name and nothing else.
6. “I’ve already got your money”
“Oh if you’re not going to laugh, it’s no problem, you already paid. LOL.”
It’s a great joke. If used once. On a willing audience. If overused, this can come across as disrespectful to the crowd. By effectively passing the buck on the audience to extract their own fun, you’re trying to let yourself off the hook. We all know how audiences can feel offended, why give them another opportunity to resent you if they’re having a bad day? Moreover, it’s not necessary to address every failed joke in your set. Sometimes, you can let it go and simply move on. Which leads me nicely into…
7. “I Expected That One to Get More Laughs.”
I’ve seen acts where 40% of the set is addressing the bit that just went by, or setting up the bit that’s coming next. Between “oh that didn’t work”, “I’ll rewrite this”, “was that too dark for you?”, “that joke was just for me”, “this next bit is really edgy”, and “let’s do some interactions”, I feel like I’m listening to someone read out the screenplay of their own routine. Get there quicker!
We’ve been fortunate to have a forgiving (mostly) and fan-filled audience in the Indian comedy scene. So there’s only so much you can ride the enthusiastic wave of manic fandom where they lap up any nonsense you speak. At some point, you do have to focus on the craft. Keep an eye out for patterns that may not serve you anymore considering the audience is maturing along with you.
Kunal Rao is a stand up comedian, writer and podcaster. His stand up comedy writing workshop for basic writing techniques is running on 29 November 2020. Click here for more information.